when the world falls apart
Okay, let’s get this much out of the way: Clearly this is an odd scripture for the day we consecrate our financial pledges before God. Visions of an apocalyptic end of the world don’t usually go with the big stewardship day. On the other hand, those of you not yet convinced to give generously might just change your minds. Now is the Day of Judgment. Seriously.
Okay, not seriously.
Still, as often as I might want to remove it, there remains a tension at the heart of the Christian faith that never really goes away. It may present itself in the anguished prayer of the Psalmist, “How long, O Lord, how long must we endure, until you come and makes all things right?” This prayer rests uncomfortably in the heart every believer and occasionally erupts into speech when confronted by events sharply at odds with our hopes. The sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr. come to mind – How long, Lord, still justice rolls down? At these moments, when everything secure seems to be coming unhinged, rather than live with the tension of life as it is and the promise of life still waiting, it is easier to sever the tension. Either there is no promise and the arc of history goes nowhere or this is the end of the world. This is often what happens when confronted by scriptures that speak about a final judgment that will come for each of us, and all of us together.
I think the more faithful way is the more difficult way: to live in the tension of what is and what is to come without reducing the importance of either. This it seems to me is what it means to live in hope, fully aware of the challenges of the day.
In scripture the tension is most evident in the apocalyptic speech that Jesus offers in Mark’s gospel. Nothing could be more cataclysmic than the destruction of the Temple, a massive structure and massive symbol of religious power and political authority. Yet, it would come to pass in the lifetime of Jesus’ disciples, before the ink is dry on Mark’s gospel. To get an image of what Jesus is predicting, imagine all the majestic Washington monuments, massively expressing the deepest core values of the nation, being reduced to rubble strewn across the National Mall.
When what we value the most on earth is shattered, what happens next? How then do I live? That is precisely what the disciples wondered.
When the world is coming apart at the seams – buildings crashing, bombs fallings, tsunamis, hurricanes and derechos engulfing whole populations – is this the time to say our final prayers and kiss our children goodbye forever? There are those who are quick to say yes, appearing almost to relish the possibility of the end of world. They dominate the television news, produce scary books and films, and generally give a false impression of the Christian faith while strangely ignoring Jesus’ teaching about the final judgment. Perhaps, this is why Jesus warned his followers to avoid false prophets who make predictions about the end of time as if any human being had such power.
To focus one’s attention on predicting the end is to focus attention in the wrong place. To expect that every war is the last war, every earthquake the last earthquake, every regime change the last regime change ushering in the end, is to have a short sighted view of history. Instead of spending our time predicting the end of time, we are better off seeking to live faithfully in the time that we have in this mortal life. Why spent your time predicting the second coming when you can live in the joy of the first coming? To live as Jesus’ disciple in this mortal life with all its sufferings and afflictions, its wars and rumors of more wars to come, requires a tenacity of faith in God that can only be described as hope.
I keep a postcard in my office to remind of this. It’s a photo of a father and his young son fishing; the caption reads: hope runs deep. Hope leans into conviction that something new and better is possible.
This hope, which comes not from our own power and will, but from the Spirit of God is what enables our ministry. It is a declaration that we intend to live into that future even now. Hope is the virtue that allows me to live with the tension of what is and what is promised, collapsing neither, because it is grounded not in what I can in God whose promise is sure.
To rest your life in God’s mercy is to be free for faithful living in the present moment, loving neighbor, loving God. It is to live into the prophet’s counsel to seek justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God. I don’t need to spend the gift of time listening to predictions about the end. Neither do you. My time – and I believe the Church’s time – is better spent actually living into the new and living way that Jesus inaugurated by his death and resurrection.
And this is why I hope each of you will give generously to support this work that God has given us to do at Saint Mark, with joy and thanksgiving. It’s a great to be alive in such a community with such a hopeful task before us.
I’m told that long before birth occurs there are labor pains that portend what is to come. Those birth pangs, while signaling something joyous to be – are not very pleasant in themselves. But without them there is no birth.
Living with hope in God is to live with the birth pangs of what is to come, including the pain of what is right now. We can’t remove the labor pains without forfeiting what is being born in God’s own time.
The way of faith is to live with birth pangs, in the sometimes painful tension of what is and what is promised, trusting in God who makes all things possible, even the age to come. That is why we today we consecrate our pledges before God and promise once again to walk in the way of faith, hope and love.